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Book Review: Psychic Confusion – The Sonic Youth Story by Steve Chick

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Sonic Youth have always been a band shrouded in mystery. Spanning a career that's about to finish off its third decade, the band have carried with them both the avant garde and experimentation of the indie underground, as well as the commercial excess of the 1990s "Alt-rock" scene. With over 15 studio albums and countless EP's, solo, and side projects, the band is still strong today — and not only strong, they're still influencing young indie rock acts and bucking the trends of commercialism. Even though band members are now in their fifties, they exude an energy not seen in many aging rock bands, and they continue to seek out new trends and sonic explorations.

My first experience of Sonic Youth came, as it did for many Americans, when The Simpsons did a parody of the band and the scene that made them a mainstream success in the episode "Homerpalooza." The Simpsons nod was the ultimate 1990s compliment of success, and for many of their young fans (like myself), it was an opportunity to seek out the band's back catalog, especially their most successful albums up to that point, Dirty, Goo, and Daydream Nation. As the band continued to inspire and mature beyond the confines of the grunge era, albums like 1986's EVOL and 1985's Bad Moon Rising were also cited as influences on many burgeoning indie rock acts.

Psychic Confusion – The Sonic Youth Story by Steve Chick tracks Sonic Youth's career from the dirty New York venues of the early 1980s to the band's recent resurgence in the 21st Century, and everything in between. Chick's exhaustive research and ability to connect the band's musical evolution to cultural changes makes this book an excellent read, one that would interest both fans of Sonic Youth and casual music lovers.

Psychic Confusion starts off with back history of where, why, and how Sonic Youth came about. Chick gives a background of some of the bands and movements within the punk rock community that go back to The Stooges and The Velvet Underground, tracing everything up to the New York punk movement No Wave, which bred Sonic Youth. From there, the book goes in chronological order, covering every major album release along with the band's personal and professional side projects.

While Sonic Youth relied heavily on bizarre alternate tunings and mind-numbing effects (including an amplified power drill, of all things) on their early albums (Sonic Youth and Confusion is Sex, specifically), the band would go on to fashion these bizarre sounds into veiled political messages (Bad Moon Rising), accesible melodies (EVOL), and commercially accessible "grunge" rock (Goo and Dirty). As Sonic Youth forged their sound into the 21st Century, they'd take a slight detour (A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers) only to come back with their tightest and most familiar sounds since their early to mid career (Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and Rather Ripped).

Chick's research shows that he is not only concerned with giving an exhaustive biography of the band's successes and failures, but also with putting everything in its social context. Chick reveals the social forces surrounding the band in America and around the world, and how Sonic Youth remained socially conscious without being obnoxious or preachy. In the midst of the Reagan era, the band, like many in the punk and hardcore community, felt disillusioned by the politics of the time. 1985's Bad Moon Rising (the title a reference to Creedence Clearwater Revival's socially conscious song of the same name) would be the album that revealed the most about the community's disillusioned feelings. Later, as the band experienced New York's lock down in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the band's 2002 album Murray Street would express some of their most intimate thoughts about the attacks. Equally, the band would tap into pop culture through their lyrics, and although the band has remained distinctly "alternative," they have always used pop culture and mainstream attitudes to shape their songs.

Psychic Confusion also reveals a band not afraid of the latest trends in the indie underground. Throughout their career, Sonic Youth always brought young indie bands along with them on tour, giving the band a reputation for being the "Godparents" of indie rock. Some of the bands they helped nurture have had their place in rock history, such as Nirvana, who always cited the band as a main reason for their success (Nirvana was signed to Geffen records on the advice of Sonic Youth, for example). Although the band are practically the grandparents of many young new bands, they continue to inspire; musicians like Devendra Banhart and Cat Power owe their success to Sonic Youth's influence and support. While many fans of the band may already know of their influential status, Chick is able to show that their influence continues and may not waver for a long time.

Although Psychic Confusion is exhaustive in its approach, there are times where Chick's historical account digs deep in the cultural history while forgetting to reveal much about Sonic Youth. For example, Chick spends part of the book discussing the grunge movement of the early 1990s, and even discusses the profound influence of heroin on some of these young acts. But in the process, he fails to mention that Sonic Youth was moving away from this scene, a rock scene that had morphed into everything they once railed against. Chick only briefly mentions the band's purposeful move to the art underground, but doesn't go into the profound changes going on in their perspective, even as they continued to release albums on major label Geffen. At the same time, Chick does a great job of explaining Sonic Youth's latest anti-Bush projects, but doesn't give enough background information about the many bands who feel disillusioned by current events, or how these bands are influencing the indie community and spurring activism.

Either way, Psychic Confusion is an excellent biography of Sonic Youth that is both exhaustive and entertaining. Chick not only covers Sonic Youth's many changes over the years, he also reveals a band that's thriving and alive. Although 2006's Rather Ripped was the band's last release on Geffen, Chick taps into the band's profound indie connections to show that they'll still thrive, even if they choose to return to their indie label roots. Even though Psychic Confusion summarizes everything the band has done so far, it leaves open the possibility of many more years of Sonic Youth history, and I'm sure Chick would be just the music writer to continue the story in the future.

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